Fall 2020 think tank.

The Most Important Takeaways from the bulb Fall 2020 Think Tank

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash.

In the beginning of the school year, I was able to host a panel of amazing educators from all over the country. We tackled questions about what the start of the school year might look like and what their plans were for the fall given the uncertainty presented by the COVID19 pandemic in their schools.

In late November, we gathered the group back together to host a fall 2020 think tank to review the start of the school year and see how well their predictions for the start of the year held up. This post is a review of the discussion from that follow-up panel which included several heart-felt moments as we all struggle with the stresses around this current environment.

The Panelists

Uwezo Frazier

Principal at William H. Turner Technical Arts High School,
Miami, FL

Kerry Gallagher

Assistant Principal of Teaching & Learning at St. John’s Prep, Danvers, MA

Don Goble

Multimedia Instructor at Ladue High School,
St. Louis, MO

Nancy Garvey

Director of Digital Learning at Coppell ISD
Coppell, TX

Reflect on how your school or district started the school year. What went well? What didn’t?

Each panelist faced different challenges when it came to how instruction would be provided. In Uwezo’s district, they had to pivot between remote and hybrid many times. He was particularly worried about equity and learning loss. It’s something that keeps him up at night as a school leader and as a member of the local community.

Kerry’s campus was much more like a college setting so they had to make some adaptations like teaching students how to go in one direction in the hallways based on the physical lay-out of those students that were in-person in their hybrid setting. Her school surveyed parents and received extremely positive feedback about how they’ve handled the adaptations. With the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder in the northeast, school leaders are concerned with what the kids are doing in terms of interactions out of school is a major concern going into winter.

Don teaches at a high school in St. Louisand was supposed to go back to in-person soon. The elementary and middle schools have brought back some students, however, at the recording of the episode, he was just notified that all high school students will remain virtual for the foreseeable future. He’s been impressed about how much work the students can get through in terms of course work and the fact that there was a very specific schedule for kids and their virtual classes. There were opportunities for extra help and office hours between students and teachers that they couldn’t get during a whole group block in the schedule.

Nancy supports multiple schools in her district in North Texas. They started out the school year remote, but are now about 70/30 remote vs. in-person. She’s been extremely impressed with the increased level of collaboration amongst teachers across the district. In some ways, this pandemic has forced them out of their comfort zone and encouraged them to connect with teachers across their district that might not have happened without the sudden disruption. A focus of her district going forward is strategies for her teachers around the area of remote assessment. There are concerns with students cheating but at the same time, they are trying to figure out ways to assess more on understanding rather than knowledge.

What is the level of teacher capacity at the moment in your schools?

It doesn’t matter what platform you use or what device you use. It doesn’t even matter if you are in the physical classroom. The teacher is still the driver of the learning experience. But how do we help teachers that are over-stressed and stretched thin? Kerry stressed how important the role of parent partnerships play in the role of learning with the teacher. As leaders, one of the best ways to help with teacher capacity issues is to alleviate some of the tasks like streamlining communication tasks. Let them focus on the teaching and learning while other support staff in the school help handle some of those other issues. Don also mentioned that we are all at virtual fatigue, but for him, he uses whatever energy he has left towards feedback to help with his students’ growth.

How do we help teachers grow in this environment?

We as leaders need to model growth and change. We also need to support teachers in any way we can. Teachers are too busy to ask for help at this point. Just like we check in with students on their mental health and SEL, Nancy mentions how important it is to do that with teachers as well. When we spend so many hours just trying to get through the day, teaching and instructional design tends to go by the wayside or occupies the evening hours of many of our teachers. Her district dedicates time for half-days with no students where teachers can recharge and work on designing their learning experiences.

Fitting a circle into a square peg?

As we try to build the plane while flying it, perhaps schools are devoting their energy into the wrong areas. In some ways we are not thinking outside the box enough on how to provide meaningful learning experiences for our learners. We are trying to fit a normal situation into a situation that isn’t normal. If adults are struggling with online learning, how do we expect kids to have the mental stamina to focus and sit through online learning. Uwezo reiterated the role that communication plays when it comes to connecting with those struggling kids with teachers, academic advisors and counselors. We need to continually check-in on our students, especially our struggling learners.

When does all this busy work become deflating for kids?

A concern that was raised by Don and shared by all the panelists, was the level of work that is being done by students. In some cases, students are being graded on whether or not they take notes or respond on discussions. There isn’t as much emphasis being put on the quality of work and understanding as it is with monitoring interactions online. In a heartfelt moment, Don shared that when he was chatting with his 13-year old son, he asked him why he had 17 tabs open on his computer. “That’s all the work I have to do today,” he replied. “And tomorrow there will be 17 more.” It was an extremely deflating interaction that caused him to reflect on his own interactions with his students as a teacher. Kerry mentioned that instead of busy work, her school was looking for opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning in more meaningful projects.

What is the future for teaching and the teaching profession?

Teacher capacity has shifted, especially towards the use of technology for learning. Now that many schools have rapidly supplied devices to students, teachers have picked up strategies on how to incorporate those that could help make a future blended environment much more meaningful. Kerry mentioned the need for teacher prep programs to address this shift when preparing teachers for this future teaching profession. Uwezo maintains that in order to really make change and make an impact in education, educators need to have a seat at the table when it comes to state and federal policies. Their voice needs to be a part of any future direction for the schools in our country and the thoughts around those policies need to be transparent.

Is this the disruption that education needed?

While the panel mentioned many of the struggles of the current environment, Don mentioned how some students are excelling in this environment. In some ways, by doing remote learning, we strip away some of the unnecessary things and diversify our instructional delivery models.  Uwezo mentioned the struggle with having learners come in for remediation classes on a Saturday can now be tutored virtually with teachers and students from the National Honors Society.  This disruption has forced us to communicate “the why” in teaching Kerry mentions and in some ways we need to continue that transparency on the learning process with our students every day. Also, as Nancy mentions, we now have the ability as parents to look in on student work in the LMS or using a portfolio tool like bulb to show students’ process as well as product.

Key Takeaways
  • We need to think a little deeper in terms of the work that our students are doing.
  • Failure rates are a big concern, but we need to have more communication. That’s the key. Everyone should be reaching out to students on a regular basis.
  • Teachers are feeling the weight of all of this. District and school leaders need to check in with their teachers regularly and see how they can support them.
  • Building partnerships with parents in this disruptive environment can truly help communication, expectations and learning. Parents now have a much bigger window into learning that should continue to grow as they support the ever-evolving learning environment.
  • As schools return to “normal”, we should continue to optimize our time (like with meetings) and continue to collaborate on new tools and strategies. In addition, districts should review which classes could continue to be virtual options for students.
  • Meetings should be more streamlined going forward.
  • The Learning Management System (LMS) needs to be more user-friendly.

I can’t thank this panel enough for the time and energy that they dedicate towards their schools but also taking time out of their busy lives to give us all an insight into what is happening in America’s schools. Their energy was infectious and gives me hope for the future of education when this is all over. Please check out the entire panel on YouTube when you have a few moments and need some words of inspiration.

We can all get through this by supporting each other!

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